Saturday, December 4, 2010

Critical appreciation – Meatless Days

The book starts out with an intriguing first sentence, Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women.

Somewhere along the way Suleri manages to show the different ways in which things are discerned in different cultures, in the unique way in which only those who straddle such differences can. This includes looking at how the sexes are differently perceived, what it means to be a woman in an eastern household- in a refreshingly non-judgemental manner.
This is the memoir of a woman of mixed heritage, from Pakistan and currently residing in the states. It takes place in both past and present and comprises a series of anecdotes about living in a household of mixed heritage, in Islamic Pakistan. We are introduced to the lives of the author, her parents, her heritage of being mixed and perhaps most importantly of all, her siblings. The sensation of impending loss and then loss realized which is oft-quoted in reviews about this book, is resoundingly present. It layers each paragraph as the pages turn. It takes awhile before the reason behind this sinks in, though. I think it has something to do with the function of memory.
The house described seems to be a complicated kind of oasis, thanks to the turbulence of the world outside, fraught with danger that may seem alien to most, but which is a palpable force hemming the narrative in, even behind the most interesting passages about Pakistani life and culture (more so, perhaps, because her father was a journalist and quite a character). But then again, most books read are filled with an alien culture, of sorts. There is also that sense of alienation from the past- trying to fit it within context of present and personal history. I feel this to be an important part and parcel of the “post-colonial” experience, which, on a more intimate scale, has something to do with memory- and alienation from it on both personal and collective levels.
It also has something to do with how human nature adapts to different life conditions- as well as the peculiar characteristics of any given culture in how it adapts. This is brought home by the title which comes from an interesting practice in Pakistan- two days of each week, meat is not sold in order to conserve the meat supply of the nation. Suleri pens an interesting study of how this practice is assimilated into custom and how it affects both her household and her memory.
My favourite aspect of this memoir remains the character studies though, because the strains of feeling and apprehending of the life-force behind each one makes this, in my opinion- the memorable work that it is. Not always an easy read, as Suleri has her own unique brand of narration and world of idioms- but ultimately, a rewarding experience.

Weaving a History

In Meatless Days Sara Suleri brings us into her childhood home in Pakistan. We learn the names of all of the favorite foods and the habits both strange and endearing of family members yet, we only receive this information in quick glimpses. Suleri uses herself, each of her family members, and the telling events of her childhood as small threads which she winds together throughout the story to create a solid tapestry of her young years in Pakistan. Just as when one is weaving a real tapestry, each thread comes into the story, leaves for a time, and then returns and the picture grows ever clearer. Her fleeting anecdotes successfully recreate the wonderments and mysteries of her childhood as well as her angst over the increasing instability of the Pakistani government. As she demonstrates with her poignnant writing, Suleri is tied to her past and to Pakistani culture and to the landscape that colored her childhood. Many memories of events in her home are inextricably linked to historical affairs in Pakistan.
This connection between public and private appears when she writes about her father and grandmother's relationship while her grandmother is recovering from serious burns.
After her immolation, Dadi's diet underwent some curious changes. At first her consciousness teetered too much for her to pray, but then as she grew stronger it took us a while to notice what was missing: she had forgotten prayer. It left her as firmly as tobacco can leave the lives of only the most passionate smokers, and I don't know if she ever prayed again. At about this time, however, with the heavy-handed inevitability that characterized his relation to his mother, my father took to prayer.
Suleri goes on to say of this strange turn in her father:
In an unspoken way, though, I think we dimly knew we were about to witness Islam's departure from the land of Pakistan. The men would take it to the streets and make it vociferate, but the great romance between religion and the populace, the embrace that engendered Pakistan, was done. So Papa prayed, with the desperate ardor of a lover trying to converse life back into a finished love.
Instead of marveling at the love for his estranged mother and religion that her father found upon his mother's injury, Suleri recounts that that historic moment in her home alerted her and her sisters to the shifting nature of religion in Pakistan.
A similar meshing of home and country appears when Suleri writes about the death of her grandmother:
I saw my mother's grave and then came back to America, hardly noticing when, six months later, my father called from London and mentioned Dadi was now dead. It happened in the same week that Bhutto finally was hanged, and our imaginations were consumed by that public and historical dying. Pakistan made rapid provisions not to talk about the thing that had been done, and somehow, accidentally, Dadi must have been mislaid into that larger decision, because she too ceased being a mentioned thing. My father tried to get back in time for the funeral, but he was so busy talking Bhutto-talk in England that he missed his flight and thus did not return.
Although she writes pages and pages about her grandmother, most of what is mentioned of her death is that it happened in the same week that Bhutto was killed. In her mind the change in her family and the change in Pakistan can hardly be separated.
Suleri gives us many brief glimpses into certain events from her life and in her country. Is her "weaving" patter effective or does it create holes in her story? How does the reader feel upon waiting to read Suleri's reaction to her father's praying or her grandmother's death and instead receiving an update on Pakistan?
Except for a handful of mentions of being embarrassed as a child or ashamed Suleri seldom writes about her personal emotions in situations. Why does she do this? What impression of Suleri does the reader perceive?
It could easily be argued that Dadi is a heroine of sorts in "Excellent Things in Women." Suleri quotes her grandmother's wise remarks and admires from a distance her strength. Yet, toward the end of the chapter Dadi is shunned from the family's daily life and dies alone. Suleri admires her grandmother but does not further explain the distancing of Dadi from the family. Why does she do this? It is clear that Dadi is meant to be viewed as one of the "excellent women," yet many of her hardships and abandonment are written about. What is Suleri attempting to tell us?

A Personal Pakistan

Sara Suleri, writes in her first chapter, "Excellent Things in Women" about the important characteristics of her female relatives. She has a keen eye for the behavior and essence of her grandmother and siblings. Suleri combines personal anecdotes, descriptions of her life in Pakistan, like the smell of "cumin and camphor," and historical narratives. This writing style encompasses many genres, although we are reading it in a course on non-fiction class. For Suleri personal events are tied to historical ones and vice versa.
By this time Bhutto was in prison and awaiting trial, and General Zulu was presiding over the Islamization of Pakistan. But we had no time to notice. My mother was buried at the nerve center of Lahore, an unruly and steady place, and my father immediately made arrangements to buy the plot of land next to her grave: "We're ready when you are," Shahid sang. Her tombstone bore some pretty Urdu poetry and a completely fictitious place of birth, because some details my father tended to forget. "Honestly," it would have moved his wife to say."

The Joys of Motherhood

She's wearing the looks of a young mother who's never been a mother before. Her face has shed a succession of masks (menopausal wife, ex-age-care officer, history teacher's life-long, long suffering mate); she's all innocence and maidenhood. A Madonna--and child. (Swift).
They were all wearing the flushed expression of dilated joy that is the mother's true prerogative. (Rushdie).
Then, as I watched that face light up, a smile quickening its voice even when she was not smiling, there was a curious recognition in her familiarity of face. "Oh," I realized, "so it's not just Emma. Mamma's daughters also bring her joy." (Suleri).
Along with the burdens of motherhood, Rushdie, Suleri and Swift all beautifully describe the miracle of motherhood and the blissfulness a child brings to its mother. Ironically, neither of the three are mothers themselves. Although the authors are unaware of a mother's actual emotions, their experiences as children of their mothers and encounters with other mothers make for a remarkably similar compilation of maternal issues. The reoccurrence of female gendered landscapes in all three novels establishes a common literary theme. Rushdie, Suleri, and Swift deal with a difficult issue faced by all postcolonial authors. That is, the issue of whether an author can write about a country, a society, or a group without participating in it themselves. In the three texts, the verisimilitude of the portraits of motherhood suggests that these authors write with a verified authority on issues of mothers found in and out of postcolonial settings.

An Empty Vessel"

Both acts of reclamation, Mary's struggling abortion on the table at the Witch doctor's home echoes of Waterland's fens and incessant dredging. While men dredge land out of the rivers, daily reclaiming land from the bottom of the rivers, the process infinitely circles. Water continually washes away the manmade land piles and men continually dredge the washed out land back out of the rivers. Dredging is an invention of the Industrial Revolution, its unnatural and work intensified tendency to fight water flow in order to protect land represents the extremes man goes to avoid abandoning his mother country. Similar to man's dredging of the fens, the Witch dredges out the fetus inside Mary in order to reclaim her virgin womb. Ridding her body of an unwanted child, Mary desperately seeks to return to the refuge of innocence and curiosity which inevitably leads her to the Witch and her potions. The botched abortion leaves Mary eternally infertile, her womb permanently reclaimed.
"Children, women are equipped with a miniature model of reality: an empty but fillable vessel. A vessel in which much can be made to happen, and to issue in consequence. In which dramas can be brewed, things can be hatched out of nothing." (Swift).
Here, history teacher Tom Crick equivocates reality with the womb, suggesting mothers can produce almost anything out of absolutely nothing. Mothers, Crick lectures, create history-- understanding history is understanding one's identity, a phenomenon formed by one's family, which blossoms out of a mother. As the mechanism for procreation of families, identities and histories, motherhood is reality. According to Crick, reality is untainted history, revealing itself from within the vessels of mothers. "And there's no saying what heady potions we won't imbibe in order to convince ourselves that reality is not an empty vessel." (Swift). The reality of Mary's forever empty vessel culminates in Mary's kidnapping a baby from a grocery store, an act which she proclaims God sent her to do. Mary's concocts "potions" of religious beliefs as she reasons with God about her barrenness; her religion solidifies upon the goals of reclaiming rights to her womb and filling her empty vessel with the unreality of a child.
In contrast to Crick, Suleri writes that along with the realization of sexuality comes the loss "of the differentiated identities of history and ourselves and [we] became guiltily aware that we had known it all along, our part in the construction of unreality." (Suleri). Suleri's women, do not aid in the making of history as Crick suggested, rather they add to the undoing of history and the "construction of unreality". While Crick lectured on the reality implanted in each woman, Suleri considers womanhood and sexual coming of age a disintegration of reality.
"What Mamma Knew" "When I first entered the university, the thought of being-in such a literal way-my mother's student was strange to me, putting us both in a novel setting, over books." (Suleri).
In Meatless Days, Suleri entitles a chapter "What Mamma Knew", a conglomeration of teachings Suleri learned from her mother, an inevitable consequence of motherhood and childrearing/bearing. Children often learn most from their mothers, as mothers tend to be the persons with which children spend most of their time at a critical learning stage in their lives. "For her preferences were there in every room, putting words into my mouth before my taste buds had a acquired a means to cope with their suggestion." (Suleri). Our mothers teach us to speak, they teach us their language and their preferences. Mothers also choose not to teach, a fact which Omar learned quickly once freed from his mothers' country. "Needless to say, what mothers had hidden from him for twelve years, schoolboys unveiled in twelve minutes." (Rushdie). A mother's influences remain strong and timeless due to the early and concentrated hours with which she spends with her children.
As a mothering figure, Mary tried to teach Dick Crick about sex, including him in her endless lessons on the search for sexuality. However, Mary's teaching proved hopeless due to the enormous size of Dick's penis and his inability to comprehend what goes into making a baby. Meanwhile Tom Crick begins to wonder, "Supposing it's not such a simple matter of teacher and pupil; supposing Mary's out to learn a thing or two as well." (Swift). He doubts whether Mary's teachings come solely from maternal extinct but rather include her undeniable desire to learn while teaching. The act of mothering can not be concretely allocated as a teaching process, just as childhood encompasses more than an institution of learning. The educational responsibilities of mother and child are interchangeable, they share a common desire to combine their knowledge and each feeds from the other's widening array of intellect.

Tongues, Meat and Corpses: Fragmentation and Disembodiment in Suleri's Meatless Days

In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri explores the implications of her fragmented identity: she is a woman from the third-world, and yet, as she puts it, "There are no women in the third-world" (20). Her motherland is Pakistan, and yet her own mother -- White, Welsh, representative of the colonizer -- can barely speak the mother tongue. In a particularly telling passage, Suleri has a dream about her mother's death in which the various fragments of Suleri's life interact in an eerie but provocative way:
And then, when I was trying to move away from the raw irritability of grief, I dreamed a dream that left me reeling. It put me in London, on the pavement of some unlovely street, an attempted crescent of vagrant houses. A blue van drove up: I noticed it was a refrigerated car and my father was inside it. He came to tell me that we must put my mother in her coffin, and he opened the blue hatch of the van to make me reach inside, where it was very cold. What I found were hunks of meat wrapped in cellophane, and each of them felt like Mamma, in some odd way. It was my task to carry those flanks across the street and to fit them into the coffin at the other side of the road, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Although my dream will not let me recall how many trips I made, I know my hands felt cold. Then, when my father's back was turned, I found myself engaged in rapid theft -- for the sake of Ifat and Shahid and Tillat and all of us, I stole away a portion of that body. It was a piece of her foot I found, a small bone like a knuckle, which I quickly hid inside my mouth, under my tongue. Then I and the dream dissolved, into an extremity of tenderness.

Rape as Metaphor

According to Sara Suleri, the trope of colonialism as rape "in which colonized territory is rendered dubiously coterminous with the stereotype of a precultural and female geography" no longer remains "culturally liberating" in part because this metaphor obscures "the anxieties of empire." She points out that rape as metaphor pervades the "antiimperialist rhetoric of such Indian nationalists as Nehru, who suggested that the colonization of the subcontinent in terms of stereotypical sexual aggression: 'They seized her body and possessed her, but it was a possession of violence. They did not know her or try to know her. They never looked into her eyes, for theirs were averted and hers cast down through shame and humiliation. While it requires a Salman Rushdie to read and to disrupt the aggression of shame -- its traversals between 'male' and 'female' discourse the stories of colonialism -- the obsolescence of the figure of rape is too naked in its figuration to allow for a sustained reading of the valences of trauma that the sexual symbolism of colonialism indubitably implies".

Time and Chronology in "Meatless Days"

In Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, time and chronology seem muted in contrast to the personal and national events that the author carefully delineates. For some reason, as readers, our internal clocks are thrown off by the aberrant role that time plays in this work. Suleri is much more concerned with communicating the actual happenings of an event and hinting at their significance, as opposed to their placement in a conventional chronological sequence. And when she does place events in a chronology, she uses her own markers of time, such as the series of cooks her family employed over the years and a friend's craze for lingerie. Consider the following passages:
Am I wrong, then, to say that my parable has to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable? Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks.  and But now I am anticipating the overthrow of a regime that didn't occur until years alter, for the petticoat government of Mustakori's camisoles began only in her post-Beijing American sojourn. Her conversation with Ifat, however, had taken place in Lahore shortly after we had graduated from Kinnaird and were left glancing about a bit in order to guess what would happen next.

Suleri's use of time

In Meatless Days, Sara Suleri moves through time and places frequently as she recounts the tale of her family and the violent history of Pakistan's independence. It is important to note that time has an ambiguous role in the book since it is not exactly linear and often is used in relevant terms. Knowing this, we can deduct that the beginning of the last chapter of the book seems to hold a special significance:
Each year, an hour gained. Because I never tampered with the clocks in Pakistan, these last ten years feel bold to me, for they have put me in the realm of daylight saving and made me mistress of time. That evening in October still remains an oddity to me, suggesting a moment of keen transaction, until I am sure that I can grasp what I keep repeating. "You must put back the clock an hour tonight."

Burying the Lede

Suleri's description of the Muslim festival Eid of Meatless Days sets up her peculiar way of telling stories:
In Pakistan, at least, people buy sheep or goats beforehand and fatten them up for weeks delectables. Then, on the appointed day, the animals are chopped, in place of the sons, and neighbors graciously exchange silver trays heaped with raw and quivering meat. Following Eid prayers the men come home, and the animal is killed.
So the animal was not killed when it was chopped? Of what, exactly does this chopping consist? The shock of the midday act is revealed to us only in the context of a later bit of information, slipped into Suleri's paragraph like a note under the door. The often ironic order in which she reveals information becomes as important as the facts themselves. She becomes the witty journalist who consciously buries the lede. Page 59 contains her hours-long rejection of Dr. Sadik, who courts her on behalf of his son. "Within a year," she reports, "Dr. Sadik had found another bride for his son, and he and my father resumed their fifty-year intimacy" (59-60). In conventional story-telling, the two facts in that sentence would trade places: "Dr. Sadik and my father resumed their friendship only after he had found another bride for his son."
Suleri points us toward her technique by describing a similar trait in her father:
There were some stories he told wonderfully, and we were trotted over them with all the expansiveness of people who conglomerate for the exclusive joy of traversing, once again, on familiar terrain. But establishing the sequence of those stories was a less easy thing to do, and for some years I would chide myself for owning an absentminded brain, a faculty so distracted that it could not even retain the structure of my father's life as part of its water table's constant.

If Gol Guppas Were Not Made in Jest, Were They Then Made in Earnest?

Sara Suleri, in her book Meatless Days uses her experiences with food to examine many other aspects of her life. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek uses nature in a similar way and at times has similar reactions to Suleri. Their different viewpoints and approaches sometimes overlap, where they use similar styles to discuss very different subject matter. The following passages exemplify some similarities and differences in their two styles.
The culinary humor of kidneys and testicles stewing in one another's juices is, on the other hand, very fine: I wish I had had the imagination to intuit all the unwonted jokes people tell when they start cooking food. I should have remembered all those nervously comic edges, and the pangs, that constitute most poignancies of nourishment.
The whole creation is one lunatic fringe. If creation had been left up to me, I'm sure I wouldn't have had the imagination or courage to do more than shape a single, reasonably sized atom, smooth as a snowball, and let it go at that. No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe.
In these passages, both authors talk about the shortcomings of their imagination in terms of their respective subjects. In the following passages, Suleri looks at creation of food and Dillard looks at the creation of the Universe.
Gol guppas are a strange food: I have never located an equivalent to them or their culinary situation. They are an outdoor food, a passing whim, and no one would dream of recreating their frivolity inside her own kitchen. A gol guppa is a small hollow oval of the lightest pastry that is dipped into a fiery liquid sauce made of tamarind and cayenne and lemon and cold water. It is evidently a food invented as a joke, in a moment of good humor.
In the Koran, Allah asks, "The heaven and the earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?" It's a good question. What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? If the giant water bug was not made in jest, was it then made in earnest?
While Suleri looks at creation in terms of food, Dillard looks in terms of nature. These examples show an inherent difference in their subject matter but also demonstrate how the two authors approach the subject matters in a similar way.

Food and Death

In the urban western world, at least in modern times, eating a piece of meat does not usually remind the consumer of exactly what is being consumed. A hamburger, fried chicken, steak, and in the ugliest example -- the hot dog -- are all meals, fuel with taste, divorced from their original origins as the body parts of living things. For many westerners, eating meat is similar to eating anything else, it is simply food. Not so in Pakistan, and not so for Sara Suleri. Suleri goes to great lengths to drive home where "meat" actually originates. In a truly repugnant example, let's look at Suleri's grandmother, Dadi, after she caught on fire and received what sound like serious third degree burns.
She lived through her sojourn at the hospital; she weathered her return. Then, after six weeks at home, she angrily refused to be lugged like a chunk of meat to the doctors's for her daily change of dressings: "Saira Begum will do it," she announced. Thus developed my great intimacy with the fluid properties human flesh...[and] on more exhilarating days I'd peel like an onion all her bandages away.

 And later when talking of kapura:
The culinary humor of the kidneys and testicles stewing in one another's juices is, on the other hand, very fine: I wish I had had the imagination to intuit all the unwonted jokes people tell when they start cooking food.

Romance and Family

Sara Suleri's intricate, dense prose presents her family, her country and its history with the sagacity of retrospection and the originality of individual autonomy. Meatless Days is stream of consciousness not in style but content, leaving a winding narrative trial of bread crumbs for the reader to follow; each chapter follows a structure of free association, exploring a plethora of loosely configured stories. Each sentence, a mental and intellectual rumination, is constructed as a self contained epiphany. The end of every chapter is a miniature conclusion: the narrative line rounding back to its original subject and subtly tying together the chapter's main theme. From the title "Goodbye to the Greatness of Tom," one would predict that the chapter is centralized with describing the dissolve of a great love. The chapter is indeed anchored by Suleri's relationship with Tom. However, Suleri devotes just as much time to her family and Pakistan as she does to her doomed love affair. She weaves stories of empty phone calls and failed promises with the creation of the state of Pakistan and her sister's and mother's graves.
What an irritant I was to my intimates in those times. "Leave," they would conjure me and then, with angry impatience, "Leave." " Yes" I'd answer with alacrity." I will!" But barely had the conversation turned its back than I could feel my mind rise up like a supplicant and say, " Give me a habit; let me wear the same clothes from season to season." Or I would wince to admit that my rash claims had failed to acknowledge the precision of things, which left me with nothing worth leaving. And so I never knew quite how I should have responded when Tillat, gazing sorrowfully away from me and out upon the arid stretch of desert-land, said, "Sara, you must learn how to settle now." She was talking about the stringent graces of monogamy. " Oh sister most monogamous," my brain groaned, "how can I tell you what it is to have a hand upon your head that shapes itself unwittingly to someone else's cranium, so that every nerve end of fidelity in you leaps up to exclaim, 'This is not the cup my skull requires'?"
In this passage, Suleri blends her reaction to her deteriorating relationship with a conversation with her sister. The seamless transition between the two scenes mirrors that of the natural progression of thought.
The line between romantic and family life is usually one that stays fairly stark and obvious for most people. Why does she juxtapose the intensely personal and individual experience of dealing with a deteriorating relationship with stories of her family? Suleri gives the reason for her attraction to Tom as that "He made things: that I think was it, in the early days of my lack of custom with such prodigious tangibility". Later on, she states that "Ah god, I thought, the man is dying, dying of invention" .

Suleri's question to the audience: Conclusion

At about the mid-point in her title chapter Meatless Days Sara Suleri breaks the narrative tone of her essay to interject a question to the audience. This makes my work as a response-question-writer substantially easier.
Am I wrong, then, to say that my parable has to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable?

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